Thyroid cancer glossary

Thyroid Cancer: 10 Terms to Know

Although thyroid cancer is not very common in the United States, it is still a potentially dangerous disease, since symptoms are typically not present until the later stages. If you are at a high risk for developing thyroid cancer, the best way to protect yourself is to be as educated as possible about this disease. Here are some of the most important terms to know. 

  1. Thyroid gland: In order to understand how thyroid cancer develops, you need to first understand where the thyroid is located and how it functions. Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is located at the base of your neck, beneath your Adam’s apple. Your thyroid is responsible for producing hormones to regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, weight, and body temperature.
  2. Tumor: Tumors arise when the cells in your body have a genetic mutation that causes them to grow and divide abnormally. There are many different types of cells in the thyroid, which means different types of cancer will develop, depending on the type of cell affected. 
  3. Papillary: This is the most common type of thyroid cancer, making up about 80% of all thyroid cancers in the United States. Fortunately, papillary thyroid cancer is very treatable, with most patients having a 10-year survival rate.
  4. Follicular: The second most common type of thyroid cancer, follicular cancer makes up about 15% of all thyroid cancer cases. This type normally occurs in an older age group than papillary thyroid cancer, with most patients being over 50 years old.
  5. Medullary: This type of thyroid cancer can be detected by checking for elevated levels of calcitonin in the blood, since it begins in the thyroid cells that produce this hormone. Your risk for medullary thyroid cancer can be increased with certain inherited genetic syndromes.
  6. Anaplastic: This is the rarest and most deadly form of thyroid cancer, since it grows and spreads so rapidly. You are at a higher risk for this form of cancer if you are over 60 years old.
  7. Radiation exposure: One of the biggest risk factors for developing thyroid cancer is being exposed to high levels of radiation. This can occur if you work or live close to fallout from places like a nuclear power plant or a weapons testing facility. It may also occur if you have received radiation treatment for previous cancer in your head or neck.
  8. Potassium iodide: If you live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant in the United States, you may be eligible to receive this medication that can block the effects of radiation on your thyroid.
  9. Lymph nodes: Since many lymph nodes are in close proximity to your thyroid, it is easy for thyroid cancer to spread to them as well. For this reason, your lymph nodes may need to be removed during treatment to prevent this from happening.
  10. Thyroidectomy: Most cases of thyroid cancer will require surgery to remove all or most of your thyroid, in a procedure known as a thyroidectomy.